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   Chapter 4 No.4

Wolfville Days By Alfred Henry Lewis Characters: 25799

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Johnny Florer's Axle Grease.

It was the afternoon-cool and beautiful. I had been nursing my indolence with a cigar and one of the large arm-chairs which the veranda of the great hotel afforded. Now and then I considered within myself as to the whereabouts of my Old Cattleman, and was in a half humor to hunt him up. Just as my thoughts were hardening into decision in that behalf, a high, wavering note, evidently meant for song, came floating around the corner of the house, from the veranda on the end. The singer was out of range of eye, but I knew him for my aged friend. Thus he gave forth:

"Dogville, Dogville!

A tavern an' a still,

That's all thar is in all Dog-ville."

"How do you feel to-day?" I asked as I took a chair near the venerable musician. "Happy and healthy, I trust?"

"Never feels better in my life," responded the Old Cattleman. "If I was to feel any better, I'd shorely go an' see a doctor."

"You are a singer, I observe."

"I'm melodious nacheral, but I'm gettin' so I sort o' stumbles in my notes. Shoutin' an' singin' 'round a passel of cattle to keep 'em from stampedin' on bad nights has sp'iled my voice, that a-way. Thar's nothin' so weakenin', vocal, as them efforts in the open air an' in the midst of the storms an' the elements. What for a song is that I'm renderin'? Son, I learns that ballad long ago, back when I'm a boy in old Tennessee. It's writ, word and music, by little Mollie Hines, who lives with her pap, old Homer Hines, over on the 'Possum Trot. Mollie Hines is shore a poet, an' has a mighty sight of fame, local. She's what you-all might call a jo-darter of a poet, Mollie is; an' let anythin' touchin' or romantic happen anywhere along the 'Possum Trot, so as to give her a subjeck, an' Mollie would be down on it, instanter, like a fallin' star. She shorely is a verse maker, an' is known in the Cumberland country as 'The Nightingale of Big Bone Lick.' I remembers when a Shylock over to the Dudleytown bank forecloses a mortgage on old Homer Hines, an' offers his settlements at public vandue that a-way, how Mollie prances out an' pours a poem into the miscreant. Thar's a hundred an' 'levcn verses into it, an' each one like a bullet outen a Winchester. It goes like this: "Thar's a word to be uttered to the rich man in his pride. (Which a gent is frequent richest when it's jest before he died!) Thar's a word to be uttered to the hawg a-eatin' truck. (Which a hawg is frequent fattest when it's jest before he's stuck!)

"Mighty sperited epick, that! You recalls that English preacher sharp that comes squanderin' 'round the tavern yere for his health about a month ago? Shore! I knows you couldn't have overlooked no bet like that divine. Well, that night in them parlors, when he reads some rhymes in a book,-whatever is that piece he reads? Locksley Hall; right you be, son! As I was sayin', when he's through renderin' said Locksley Hall, he comes buttin' into a talk with me where I'm camped in a corner all cosy as a toad onder a cabbage leaf, reecoverin' myse'f with licker from them recitals of his, an' he says to me, this parson party does:

"'Which it's shorely a set-back America has no poets,' says he.

"'It's evident,' I says, 'that you never hears of Mollie Hines.'

"'No, never once,' he replies; 'is this yere Miss Hines a poet?'

"Is Mollie Hines a poet!' I repeats, for my scorn at the mere idee kind o' stiffens its knees an' takes to buckin' some. 'Mollie Hines could make that Locksley Hall gent you was readin' from, or even the party who writes Watt's Hymns, go to the diskyard.' An' then I repeats some forty of them stanzas, whereof that one I jest now recites is a speciment.

"What does this pulpit gent say? He see I has him cinched, an' he's plumb mute. He confines himse'f to turnin' up his nose in disgust like Bill Storey does when his father-in-law horsewhips him."

Following this, the Old Cattleman and I wrapped ourselves in thoughtful smoke, for the space of five minutes, as ones who pondered the genius of "The Nightingale of Big Bone Lick"-Mollie Hines on the banks of the Possom Trot. At last my friend broke forth with a question.

"Whoever is them far-off folks you-all was tellin' me is related to


"The Japanese." I replied. "Undoubtedly the Indians and the Japanese are of the same stock."

"Which I'm foaled like a mule," said the old gentleman, "a complete prey to inborn notions ag'in Injuns. I wouldn't have one pesterin' 'round me more'n I'd eat off en the same plate with a snake. I shore has aversions to 'em a whole lot. Of course, I never sees them Japs, but I saveys Injuns from feathers to moccasins, an' comparin' Japs to Injuns, I feels about 'em like old Bill Rawlins says about his brother Jim's wife."

"And how was that?" I asked.

The afternoon was lazy and good, and I in a mood to listen to my rambling grey comrade talk of anybody or anything.

"It's this a-way," he began. "This yere Bill an' Jim Rawlins is brothers an' abides in Roanoke, Virginny. They splits up in their yooth, an' Jim goes p'intin' out for the West. Which he shore gets thar, an' nothin' is heard of him for forty years.

"Bill Rawlins, back in Roanoke, waxes a heap rich, an' at last clears up his game an' resolves lie takes a rest. Also he concloods to travel; an' as long as he's goin' to travel, he allows he'll sort o' go projectin' 'round an' see if he can't locate Jim.

"He gets a old an' musty tip about Jim, this Bill Rawlins does, an' it works out all right. Bill cuts Jim's trail 'way out yonder on the Slope at a meetropolis called Los Angeles. But this yere Jim ain't thar none. The folks tells Bill they reckons Jim is over to Virginny City.

"It's a month later, an' Bill is romancin' along on one of them Nevada mountain-meadow trails, when he happens upon a low, squatty dugout, the same bein' a camp rather than a house, an' belongs with a hay ranche. In the door is standin' a most ornery seemin' gent, with long, tangled ha'r an' beard, an' his clothes looks like he's shorely witnessed times. The hands of this ha'ry gent is in his pockets, an' he exhibits a mighty soopercilious air. Bill pulls up his cayouse for a powwow.

"How far is it to a place where I can camp down for the night?' asks


"'It's about twenty miles to the next wickeyup,' says the soopercilious gent.

"'Which I can't make it none to-night, then,' says Bill.

"'Not on that hoss,' says the soopercilious gent, for Bill's pony that a-way is plenty played.

"'Mebby, then,' says Bill, ` I'd better bunk in yere.'

"'You can gamble you-all don't sleep yere,' says the soopercilious gent; 'none whatever!'

'An' why not?' asks Bill.

"'Because I won't let you,' says the soopercilious gent, a-bitin' off a piece of tobacco. 'This is my camp, an' force'ble invasions by casooal hold-ups like you, don't preevail with me a little bit. I resents the introosion on my privacy.'

"'But I'll have to sleep on these yere plains,' says Bill a heap plaintif.

"'Thar's better sports than you-all slept on them plains,' says the soopercilious gent.

"Meanwhile, thar's a move or two, speshully the way he bats his eyes, about this soopercilious gent that sets Bill to rummagin' 'round in his mem'ry. At last he asks:

"'Is your name Rawlins?'

"'Yes, sir, my name's Rawlins,' says the soopercilious gent.

"'Jim Rawlins of Roanoke?'

"'Jim Rawlins of Roanoke;' an' the soopercilious gent reaches inside the door of the dugout, searches forth a rifle an' pumps a cartridge into the bar'l.

"'Stan' your hand, Jim!' says Bill, at the same time slidin' to the ground with the hoss between him an' his relatif; 'don't get impetyoous. I'm your brother Bill.'

"'What!' says the soopercilious gent, abandonin' them hostile measures, an' joy settlin' over his face. 'What!' he says; 'you my brother Bill? Well, don't that beat grizzly b'ars amazin'! Come in, Bill, an' rest your hat. Which it's simply the tenderness of hell I don't miss you.'

"Whereupon Bill an' Jim tracks along inside an' goes to canvassin' up an' down as to what ensooes doorin' them forty years they've been parted. Jim wants to know all about Roanoke an' how things stacks up in old Virginny, an' he's chuckin' in his questions plenty rapid.

"While Bill's replyin', his eye is caught by a frightful-lookin' female who goes slyin' in an' out, a-organizin' of some grub. She's the color of a saddle, an' Bill can't make out whether she's a white, a Mexican, a Digger Injun or a nigger. An' she's that hideous, this female is, she comes mighty near givin' Bill heart failure. Son, you-all can't have no idee how turribie this person looks. She's so ugly the flies won't light on her. Yes, sir! ugly enough to bring sickness into a fam'ly. Bill can feel all sorts o' horrors stampedin' about in his frame as he gazes on her. Her eyes looks like two bullet holes in a board, an' the rest of her feachers is tetotaciously indeescrib'ble. Bill's intellects at the awful sight of this yere person almost loses their formation, as army gents would say. At last Bill gets in a question on his rapid-fire relatif, who's shootin' him up with queries touchin' Roanoke to beat a royal flush.

"'Jim,' says Bill, sort o' scared like, 'whoever is this yere lady who's roamin' the scene?'

"'Well, thar now!' says Jim, like he's plumb disgusted, 'I hope my gun may hang fire, if I don't forget to introdooce you! Bill, that's my wife.'

"Then Jim goes surgin' off all spraddled out about the noomerous an' manifest excellencies of this female, an' holds forth alarmin' of an' concernin' her virchoos an' loveliness of face an' form, an' all to sech a scand'lous degree, Bill has to step outdoors to blush.

"'An', Bill,' goes on Jim, an' he's plumb rapturous, that a-way, 'may I never hold three of a kind ag'in, if she ain't got a sister who's as much like her as two poker chips. I'm co'tin' both of 'em mighty near four years before ever I can make up my mind whichever of 'em I needs. They're both so absolootely sim'lar for beauty, an' both that aloorin' to the heart, I simply can't tell how to set my stack down. At last, after four years, I ups an' cuts the kyards for it, an' wins out this one.'

"'Well, Jim,' says Bill, who's been settin' thar shudderin' through them rhapsodies, an' now an' then gettin' a glimpse of this yere female with the tail of his eye: 'Well, Jim, far be it from me, an' me your brother, to go avouchin' views to make you feel doobious of your choice. But candor's got the drop on me an' compels me to speak my thoughts. I never sees this sister of your wife, Jim, but jest the same, I'd a heap sight rather have her.'

"An' as I observes previous," concluded the old gentleman, "I feels about Japs an' Injuns like Bill does about Jim's wife that time. I never sees no Japs, but I'd a mighty sight rather have 'em."

There was another pause after this, and cigars were produced. For a time the smoke curled in silence. Then my friend again took up discussion.

"Thar comes few Injuns investigatin' into Wolfville. Doorin' them emutes of Cochise, an' Geronimo, an' Nana, the Apaches goes No'th an' South clost in by that camp of ours, but you bet! they're never that locoed as to rope once at Wolfville. We-all would shorely have admired to entertain them hostiles; but as I su'gests, they're a heap too enlightened to give us a chance.

"Savages never finds much encouragement to come ha'ntin' about Wolfville. About the first visitin' Injun meets with a contreetemps; though this is inadvertent a heap an' not designed. This buck, a Navajo, I takes it, from his feathers, has been pirootin' about for a day or two. At last I reckons he allows he'll eelope off into the foothills ag'in. As carryin' out them roode plans which he forms, he starts to scramble onto the Tucson stage jest as Old Monte's c'llectin' up his reins. But it don't go; Injuns is barred. The gyard, who's perched up in front next to Old Monte, pokes this yere aborigine in the middle of his face with the muzzle of his rifle; an' as the Injun goes tumblin', the stage starts, an' both wheels passes over him the longest way. That Injun gives a groan like twenty sinners, an his lamp is out.

"Old Monte sets the brake an' climbs down an' sizes up the remainder. Then he gets back on the box, picks up his six hosses an' is gettin' out.

"'Yere, you!' says French, who's the Wells-Fargo agent, a-callin' after Old Monte, 'come back an' either plant your game or pack it with you. I'm too busy a gent to let you or any other blinded drunkard go leavin' a fooneral at my door. Thar's enough to do here as it is, an' I don't want no dead Injuns on my hands.'

"'Don't put him up thar an' go sp'ilin' them mail-bags,' howls Old Monte, as French an' a hoss-hustler from inside the corral lays hold of the Navajo to throw him on

with the baggage.

"'Then come down yere an' ride herd on the play yourse'f, you murderin' sot!' says French.

"An' with that, he shore cuts loose an' cusses Old Monte frightful; cusses till a cottonwood tree in front of the station sheds all its leaves, an' he deadens the grass for a hundred yards about.

"'Promotin' a sepulcher in this rock-ribbed landscape,' says French, as Jack Moore comes up, kind o' apol'gisin' for his profane voylence at Old Monte; 'framin' up a tomb, I say, in this yere rock-ribbed landscape ain't no child's play, an' I'm not allowin' none for that homicide Monte to put no sech tasks on me. He knows the Wolfville roole. Every gent skins his own polecats an' plants his own prey.'

"'That's whatever!' says Jack Moore, 'an' onless Old Monte is thirstin' for trouble in elab'rate forms, he acquiesces tharin.'

"With that Old Monte hitches the Navajo to the hind axle with a lariat which French brings out, an' then the stage, with the savage coastin' along behind, goes rackin' off to the No'th. Later, Monte an' the passengers hangs this yere remainder up in a pine tree, at an Injun crossin' in the hills, as a warnin'. Whether it's a warnin' or no, we never learns; all that's shore is that the remainder an' the lariat is gone next day; but whatever idees the other Injuns entertains of the play is, as I once hears a lecture sharp promulgate, 'concealed with the customary stoicism of the American savage.'

"Most likely them antipathies of mine ag'in Injuns is a heap enhanced by what I experiences back on the old Jones an' Plummer trail, when they was wont to stampede our herds as we goes drivin' through the Injun Territory. Any little old dark night one of them savages is liable to come skulkin' up on the wind'ard side of the herd, flap a blanket, cut loose a yell, an' the next second thar's a hundred an' twenty thousand dollars' worth of property skally- hootin' off into space on frenzied hoofs. Next day, them same ontootered children of the woods an' fields would demand four bits for every head they he'ps round up an' return to the bunch. It's a source of savage revenoo, troo; but plumb irritatin'. Them Injuns corrals sometimes as much as a hundred dollars by sech treacheries. An' then we-all has to rest over one day to win it back at poker.

"Will Injuns gamble? Shore! an' to the limit at that! Of course, bein', as you saveys, a benighted people that a-way, they're some easy, havin' no more jedgment as to the valyoo of a hand than Steve Stevenson, an' Steve would take a pa'r of nines an' bet 'em higher than a cat's back. We allers recovers our dinero, but thar's time an' sleep we lose an' don't get back.

"Yes, indeed, son, Injuns common is as ornery as soapweed. The only good you-all can say of 'em is, they're nacheral-born longhorns, is oncomplainin', an' saveys the West like my black boy saveys licker. One time-this yere is 'way back in my Texas days-one time I'm camped for long over on the Upper Hawgthief. It's rained a heap, an' bein' as I'm on low ground anyhow, it gets that soft an' swampy where I be it would bog a butterfly. For once I'm took sick; has a fever, that a-way. An' lose flesh! shorely you should have seen me! I falls off like persimmons after a frost, an' gets as ga'nt an' thin as a cow in April. So I allows I'll take a lay-off for a couple of months an' reecooperate some.

"Cossettin' an' pettin' of my health, as I states, I saddles up an' goes cavortin' over into the Osage nation to visit an old compadre of mine who's a trader thar by the name of Johnny Florer. This yere Florer is an old-timer with the Osages; been with 'em it's mighty likely twenty year at that time, an' is with 'em yet for all the notice I ever receives.

"On the o'casion of this ambassy of mine, I has a chance to study them savages, an' get a line on their char'cters a whole lot. This tune I'm with Johnny, what you-all might call Osage upper circles is a heap torn by the ontoward rivalries of a brace of eminent bucks who's each strugglin' to lead the fashion for the tribe an' raise the other out.

"Them Osages, while blanket Injuns, is plumb opulent. Thar's sixteen hundred of 'em, an' they has to themse'fs 1,500,000 acres of as good land as ever comes slippin' from the palm of the Infinite. Also, the gov'ment is weak-minded enough to confer on every one of 'em, each buck drawin' the dinero for his fam'ly, a hundred an' forty big iron dollars anyooally. Wherefore, as I observes, them Osages is plenty strong, financial.

"These yere two high-rollin' bucks I speaks of, who's strugglin' for the social soopremacy, is in the midst of them strifes while I'm visitin' Florer. It's some two moons prior when one of 'em, which we'll call him the 'Astor Injun,' takes a heavy fall out of the opp'sition by goin' over to Cherryvale an' buyin' a sooperannuated two-seat Rockaway buggy. To this he hooks up a span of ponies, loads in his squaws, an' p'rades 'round from Pawhusky to Greyhoss-the same bein' a couple of Osage camps-an' tharby redooces the enemy- what we'll name the 'Vanderbilt Injuns'-to desp'ration. The Astor savage shorely has the call with that Rockaway.

"But the Vanderbilt Osage is a heap hard to down. He takes one look at the Astor Injun's Rockaway with all its blindin' splendors, an' then goes streakin' it for Cherryvale, like a drunkard to a barbecue. An' he sees the Rockaway an' goes it several better. What do you-all reckon now that savage equips himse'f with? He wins out a hearse, a good big black roomy hearse, with ploomes onto it an' glass winders in the sides.

"As soon as ever this Vanderbilt Injun stiffens his hand with the hearse, he comes troopin' back to camp with it, himse'f on the box drivin', an' puttin' on enough of lordly dog to make a pack of hounds. Which he shorely squelches the Astors; they jest simply lay down an' wept at sech grandeur. Their Rockaway ain't one, two, three,-ain't in the money.

"An' every day the Vanderbilt Injun would load his squaws an' papooses inside the hearse, an' thar, wropped in their blankets an' squattin' on the floor of the hearse for seats, they would be lookin' out o' the winders at common savages who ain't in it an' don't have no hearse. Meanwhiles, the buck Vanderbilt is drivin' the outfit all over an' 'round the cantonments, the entire bunch as sassy an' as flippant as a coop o' catbirds. It's all the Astors can do to keep from goin' plumb locoed. The Vanderbilts win.

"One mornin', when Florer an' me has jest run our brands onto the fourth drink, an old buck comes trailin' into the store. His blanket is pulled over his head, an' he's pantin' an' givin' it out he's powerful ill.

"'How is my father?' says Johnny in Osage.

"'Oh, my son,' says the Injun, placin' one hand on his stomach, an' all mighty tender, 'your father is plenty sick. Your father gets up this mornin', an' his heart is very bad. You must give him medicine or your father will die.'

"Johnny passes the invalid a cinnamon stick an' exhorts him to chew on that, which he does prompt an' satisfactory, like cattle on their cud. This cinnamon keeps him steady for 'most five minutes.

"'Whatever is the matter with this savage?' I asks of Johnny.

"'Nothin' partic'lar,' says Johnny. 'Last night he comes pushin' in yere an' buys a bottle of Worcestershire sauce; an' then he gets gaudy an' quaffs it all up on a theery she's a new-fangled fire water. He gets away with the entire bottle. It's now he realizes them errors, an' takes to groanin' an' allowin' it gives him a bad heart. Which I should shorely admit as much!'

"'Your father is worse,' says the Osage, as he comes cuttin' in on Johnny ag'in. 'Must have stronger medicine. That medicine,' holdin' up some of the cinnamon, 'that not bad enough.'

"At this, Johnny passes his 'father' over a double handful of black pepper before it's ground.

"'Let my father get away with that,' says Johnny, 'an' he'll feel like a bird. It will make him gay an' full of p'isen, like a rattlesnake in August.'

"Out to the r'ar of Johnny's store is piled up onder a shed more'n two thousand boxes of axle grease. It was sent into the nation consigned to Johnny by some ill-advised sports in New York, who figgers that because the Osages as a tribe abounds in wagons, thar must shorely be a market for axle grease. That's where them New York persons misses the ford a lot. Them savages has wagons, troo; but they no more thinks of greasin' them axles than paintin' the runnin' gear. They never goes ag'inst that axle grease game for so much as a single box; said ointment is a drug. When he don't dispose of it none, Johnny stores it out onder a shed some twenty rods away, an' regyards it as a total loss.

"'Axle grease,' says Johnny, 'makes a p'int in civilization to which the savage has not yet clambered, an' them optimists, East, who sends it on yere, should have never made no sech break.'

"Mebby it's because this axle grease grows sullen an' feels neglected that a-way; mebby it's the heats of two summers an' the frosts of two winters which sp'iles its disp'sition; shore it is at any rate that at the time I'm thar, that onguent seems fretted to the core, an' is givin' forth a protestin' fragrance that has stood off a coyote an' made him quit at a distance of two hundred yards. You might even say it has caused Nacher herse'f to pause an' catch her breath.

"It's when the ailin' Osage, whose malady is too deep-seated to be reached by cinnamon or pimento, comes frontin' up for a third preescription, that the axle grease idee seizes Johnny.

"'Father,' says Johnny, 'come with me. Your son will now saw off some big medicine on you; a medicine meant for full-blown gents like you an' me. Come, father, come with your son, an' you shall be cured in half the time it takes to run a loop on a lariat.'

"Johnny breaks open one of the axle grease boxes, arms the savage with a chip for a spoon, an' exhorts him to cut in on it a whole lot.

"Son, the odors of them wares is awful; Kansas butter is violets to it; but it never flutters that Osage. Ile takes Johnny's chip an' goes to work, spadin' that axle grease into his mouth, like he ain't got a minute to live. When he's got away with half the box, he tucks the balance onder his blanket an' retires to his teepee with a look of gratitoode on his face. His heart has ceased to be bad, an' them illnesses, which aforetime has him on the go, surrenders to the powers of this yere new medicine like willows to the wind. With this, he goes caperin' out for his camp, idly hummin' a war song, sech is his relief.

"An' here's where Johnny gets action on that axle grease. It shorely teaches, also, the excellence of them maxims, 'Cast your bread upon the waters an' you'll be on velvec before many days.' Within two hours a couple of this sick buck's squaws comes sidlin' tip to Johnny an' desires axle grease. It's quoted at four bits a box, an' the squaws changes in five pesos an' beats a retreat, carryin' away ten boxes. Then the fame of this big, new medicine spreads; that axle grease becomes plenty pop'lar. Other bucks an' other squaws shows up, changes in their money, an' is made happy with axle grease. They never has sech a time, them Osages don't, since the battle of the Hoss-shoe. Son, they packs it off in blankets, freights it away in wagons. They turns loose on a reg'lar axle grease spree. In a week every box is sold, an' thar's orders stacked up on Florer's desk for two kyar-loads more, which is bein' hurried on from the East. Even the Injuns' agent gets wrought up about it, an' begins to bellow an' paw 'round by way of compliments to Johnny. He makes Johnny a speech.

"'Which I've made your excellent discovery, Mr. Florer,' says this agent, 'the basis of a report to the gov'ment at Washin'ton. I sets forth the mad passion of these yere Osages for axle grease as a condiment, a beverage, an' a cure. I explains the tribal leanin' that exists for that speshul axle grease which is crowned with years, an' owns a strength which comes only as the cor'lary of hard experience. Axle grease is like music an' sooths the savage breast. It is oil on the troubled waters of aboriginal existence. Its feet is the feet of peace. At the touch of axle grease the hostile abandons the war path an' surrenders himse'f. He washes off his paint an' becometh with axle grease as the lamb that bleateth. The greatest possible uprisin' could be quelled with a consignment of axle grease. Mr. Florer, I congratulate you. From a humble store- keep, sellin' soap, herrin' an' salt hoss, you takes your stand from now with the ph'lanthropists an' leaders among men. You have conjoined Injuns an' axle grease. For centuries the savage has been a problem which has defied gov'ment. He will do so no more. Mr. Florer, you have solved the savage with axle grease.'"

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